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Frustration versus Fantasy: How the Movies Made Some People Restless

Fears about the impact of movies on youth led to the Payne Fund research project, which brought together nineteen social scientists and resulted in eleven published reports. One of the most fascinating of the studies was carried out by Herbert Blumer, a young sociologist who would later go on to a distinguished career in the field. For a volume that he called Movies and Conduct (1933), Blumer asked more than fifteen hundred college and high school students to write “autobiographies”of their experiences going to the movies. In this excerpt from Blumer’s study, the sociologist collected together comments from young people describing how the movies led to dissatisfaction with their lives and conflicts with their parents.

The sample of 458 high-school autobiographies was gone over to ascertain the number of writers who wrote of having become dissatisfied with their home at some time or other as a result of what was witnessed in motion pictures. It was found that 22 per cent of the writers spoke of such experiences. . . . It is interesting to observe in the case of those who spoke of having become dissatisfied as a result of witnessing motion pictures that the percentage of girls was twice as great as the percentage of boys. Some indication of the way in which motion pictures develop dissatisfaction in the case of high-school boys and girls is given in the following accounts:

Male, 18, Negro, high-school senior. Often I get ideas of how much freedom I should have from the way in which fellows and girls are given privileges in the movies, because they can wear the best of clothes, make plenty of money, go nearly any place they I choose, become well known throughout the country and enjoy all the luxuries of life.

Male, 20, white, college sophomore. I have compared the life shown in society pictures to the life around me and have found it very misleading. It furnishes one with the wrong ideas of luxuries and tends to make one discontented with his surroundings. In this way the movies depicting social life at first disturbed me. I wasn’t satisfied with my environment; I expect too much from my parents in the way of comfort and leisure.

Female, 16, white, high-school junior. The movies have always made me dissatisfied with my neighborhood, but not with my life. I have always wanted to live in a beautiful bungalow like those you see in the movies.

Female, 16, Negro, high-school freshman. Since I have gotten old enough to realize what good times really are I am dissatisfied with my clothes and my home. I see the girls in the movies going out in cars to roadhouses and to balls, cabarets, and many other things that put me in the habit of wanting to go too. Sometimes I feel like stopping school and going to work for myself so I can go any place I want, do anything and get anything. I think the young girls of today should be given privileges to go and have a good time, not all of the time, but very often so they can enjoy themselves as everybody else.

In the light of these accounts it is fitting to observe that motion pictures often present the extremes as if they were the norm. Further, it is an attractive norm. For many young movie-goers no discrimination is possible—the intriguing appeal of the picture, the seemingly natural sanction which it carries, and the simple vividness of its display combine to impress its content as proper and unquestionable. . . .

Female, 15, Negro, high-school freshman. The movies have often made me dissatisfied with my neighborhood, because when I see a movie, the beautiful castle, palace, stone and beautiful house, I wish my home was something like this. . . .

Female, 17, white, high-school senior. After seeing a wonderful picture full of thrills and beautiful scenes, my own home life would seem dull and drab. . .

Female, 17, white, high-school senior. Fashionable pictures made me long for fine clothes. I could not see why my parents were not able to buy me all the clothes that I wanted.

Source: Herbert Blumer. Movies and Conduct (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1970): 156–160.

See Also:Kissing Rudy Valentino: A High-School Student Describes Movie Going in the 1920s
From Cowboys to Clara Bow: A College Student's Motion Picture Autobiography
Movie Dreams and Movie Injustices: A Black High-School Student Tells What 1920s Movies Meant to Him